Deconstructing “Formalization” as Panacea for the Informal Economy

IGO definitions of the informal economy are crafted from a top down perspective (Global North*) of the operating environment prevalent in the economies of the developing world (Global South*). Further, they do not distinguish between the operating environment of the shadow economies of OECD nations, and those which encompass the unorganized sectors of trade and industry in emerging regions.

Schneider and Enste describe this so:

A factory worker has a second job driving an unlicensed taxi at night; a plumber fixes a broken water pipe for a client, gets paid in cash but doesn’t declare his earnings to the tax collector; a drug dealer brokers a sale with a prospective customer on a street corner. These are all examples of the underground or shadow economy—activities, both legal and illegal, that add up to trillions of dollars a year that take place “off the books,” out of the gaze of taxmen and government statisticians.

And, this applies very well for the shadow economies of the OECD, and the transition nations per their classification (which are again in Europe). However, the question is, whether this applies, without caveats, to the developing world?

Deconstructing their definition shows a framework based on an implicit underlying assumption of a functional state, with adequate infrastructure and reliable systems of service provision. In fact, Schneider and Enste correlate size of shadow economy, as they label it, with issues of governance, corruption, and state regulation. However, their underlying assumption of a functional design for the bureaucracy required to govern that state still hold. And, critically, it assumes that taxes collected will be invested back into easily accessible and well designed citizen services, or that the licensing and permits are backed by enforceable rules and regulations on health and safety, for instance.

One example of inaccessible services would be from Kenya’s new Trade Policy (May 2017) which acknowledges the unnecessary barrier to formalization posed to micro and small enterprises countrywide by the centralization of business registration at government in the national capital. Thus, simplifying this process, and enabling it online would certainly have great impact on the numbers of micros/small enterprises still informal.

An even more complicated real world example is that of Somaliland, a rather peaceful, entrepreneurial trading nation who has yet to be recognized as such. Is their entire economy to be considered informal by the best definitions available? And if so, how exactly would any recommendations to formalize so that they can “join the global trading network” be implemented? The Financial Times offers some interesting answers to this conundrum.

… in the eyes of the international community, Somaliland does not exist. This causes innumerable problems, not least economic.
[…]
Yet Somalilanders pride themselves on their stoicism and resourcefulness; and in spite of the myriad issues that lack of formal recognition brings, the business community remains optimistic.
[…]
Those with the foresight to look beyond the question of recognition, and towards the potential that Somaliland offers, will be rewarded — and will help to make history.

This could be very well said for the entire informal economy in the frontier markets of the developing world. India, for instance, possessor of over 400 million people employed in the informal sector, has had no choice but to consider potential for job creation and employment opportunities serving 90% of her workforce as the mainstream. In fact, current analysis echoes the same sentiments as Somaliland’s:

The conditions under which formality – taken here as compliance with the rules and structures of a taxable economy – flourishes can be described by the example of Finland. The system of administration more or less works transparently, and with accountability, within the rule of law. Decent work is not only mandated by policy, but such social protections are enforced publically. Tax revenues visibly provide benefits such as free education through to post doctoral level, and supports healthcare and other amenities to the community. Bureaucracy mostly does its job sincerely and cheerfully – speaking from experience as an expat, and now an immigrant. One can become a properly registered business as a sole proprietor, or self employed entrepreneur, quickly and affordably either online or at the local authorities.

Without all or most of these conditions being met by the infrastructure and the systems, as currently designed and implemented, in developing countries, such as those on the African continent, or in India, can “formalization” be pushed unconditionally as the optimal solution to the development problem of their economies? Is it any wonder that nowhere has informality been eradicated as promised decades ago, in fact its only grown as new jobseekers face extreme competition for the limited number of positions available in the formal or modern or civil sector?

Zimbabwe offers a case study worth studying further to validate this given that their economy has informalized exponentially over the past decade or so.

 

* Hence why this label is in itself problematic.

Be the first to leave a comment. Don’t be shy.

Join the Discussion

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>